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Op-ed: Mark MacLeod

C-CORE as a bridge between academia and industry, or, 42 years in "the Valley of Death"

Part of a special feature showcasing Memorial’s innovation ecosystem, a pan-university effort focused on supporting the development and success of innovators across Newfoundland and Labrador.  


By Mark MacLeod

With close to a year now under my belt as president and CEO of C-CORE, I’m proud to say it is a privilege to be part of this amazing organization and to lead its dedicated, talented team into a fifth decade of providing smart solutions for challenging environments.

For readers not familiar with us, C-CORE was founded in 1975 to address the technical challenges of developing oil and gas resources offshore Newfoundland and Labrador and other ice-prone marine environments.

Focused and businesslike

Over the past 42 years we have developed the technical and business expertise to operate successfully as a self-sustaining separately incorporated entity of Memorial University.

That reality is great for keeping us focused and businesslike. And our business is innovation through contract R&D.

A 2016 report by Drs. Peter Warrian and David Wolfe of the Innovation Policy Lab at the University of Toronto explored the role of C-CORE and the Marine Institute as university-industry bridging organizations.

The report described our work in terms of NASA’s technology readiness levels (TRLs), arguing that C-CORE fills the gap in the TRL scale between universities (which operate within TRLs 1-3 or basic discovery, conceptualization and proof of concept) and industries (which operate within TRLs 8-9 or commercial application and marketing).

“This is where innovations typically die — no longer eligible for basic research funding and not quite ready to support themselves through commercial sales.”

C-CORE operates in the most challenging segment of the innovation ecosystem: TRLs 4-7, or development, innovation and demonstration.

This phase is also known as the Valley of Death, because this is where innovations typically die — no longer eligible for basic research funding and not quite ready to support themselves through commercial sales.

Bridge building

C-CORE has navigated this valley successfully by partnering strategically — with academic researchers and with interested end users — to ensure connection between the latest research and market needs.

Those partnerships create a bridge spanning the space between academic investigation and real-world application. And like an actual bridge, it takes a lot of hard work and time to build and maintain.

Our primary academic partnership is, of course, with Memorial University — our founder and our home.

“In 42 years, we’ve financially supported more than 1,200 students, who keep us connected to the most current research and new thinking.”

Memorial is represented on C-CORE’s board of directors, helping set our strategic direction. We have strong links with the science and engineering faculties, and collaborate for mutual benefit.

Faculty members sometimes work on C-CORE projects or engage C-CORE as a partner in their projects. C-CORE staff serve as cross-appointed faculty, develop and teach courses, supervise graduate students and involve students in applied research projects.

In 42 years, we’ve financially supported more than 1,200 students, who keep us connected to the most current research and new thinking. By strategic sharing of skills, facilities and human resources, C-CORE and Memorial both enjoy increased funding and research opportunities.

Innovation continuum

On the other end of the innovation continuum, C-CORE connects with industry and end users in various ways.

The majority of our 100-plus annual contracts are conducted for industry clients; most of our board members come from industry.

We also engage with industry associations and conduct workshops to explore industry problems and end user needs in the natural resource, energy, transportation, security, defence and space sectors.

Right now we’re in the middle of a new exercise to engage bright academic minds to solve an industry problem.

“In just nine short months, I’ve learned that academia and industry aren’t so far apart.”

In early November, with a $50,000 prize purse from Statoil, C-CORE launched a Kaggle competition to find new, more efficient ways to automatically distinguish between ships and icebergs in satellite imagery. We uploaded a data set of 5,000 satellite images in which we had previously detected either icebergs or ships.

Today, 1,748 data analysts and computer vision innovators worldwide are working on the problem.

In just nine short months, I’ve learned that academia and industry aren’t so far apart. Both worlds are creative, innovative and dedicated to solving problems.

I’m proud to be part of the bridge that connects them.


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